1.5 Months Abroad: 21(ish) Things I Know

Today marks my month and a half of living in Saigon. I’m sure it seems like a small feat, but it feels big. Every day I’m learning (or seeing) something new, but here’s what I know so far:

1. The excessive beeping isn’t considered rude, but a way of saying, “Excuse me, just so you know, I’m here.” Coming from NYC, it shouldn’t bother me too much. And now that I’m driving, I get it. I really do. But there are so many instances I’ll be sitting in traffic or in a cab and drivers will blare their horns, arbitrarily and incessantly, and I feel like I’m going to lose my shit.

2. I’m a millionaire. Approximately 1 million Vietnamese dong equals $45, so I still feel like a bad ass taking out a couple million from the ATM each week.

3. The coffee and café culture is unmatched. Seriously, I came here thinking that my days of café living were over. Wrong. There are more cafes than I can hope to visit in my time here. And they all have adorable interior décor and sell drinks that cost a fraction of what they cost in America. I have an iced coffee in the morning and afternoon, and it’s the best part of my day. The coffee is rich and almost chocolatey, mixed with a splash of condensed milk… there’s nothing else like it.

4. Speaking of which, everything is ridiculously cheap. I thought it was an exaggeration, but 10,000 vnd for a beer? That’s literally 45 cents. One time, I ordered a 5-course meal and paid $5 for it. After living here, it will be hard to cough up more than $10 for a meal. I’m trying to stay away from Shoe Street, but knowing that I can buy two pairs for $15 is almost too much for my shopaholic heart to handle.

5. Being vegetarian or vegan is super easy. Thanks to the large Buddhist population, vegetarian/vegan restaurants are incredibly commonplace in Vietnam. All vegetarian meals I’ve had here have blown my mind: the fried lemongrass tofu, butternut squash curry, curried pineapple, egg bánh mis, the bánh xèo
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I actually love how vegetarianism isn’t a thing or regarded as an inconvenience, but totally integrated into the culture. Most street food and restaurants have amazing vegetarian options or are purely vegetarian. Not to mention, it’s even convenient to communicate. Simply “chay”—said flat and evenly—means vegetarian. With enough pointing at yourself and the food, they’ll understand that you want in on all the veggie dishes.

6. Yeah, cheese isn’t really a thing here. Neither are most dairy products, which is pretty normal for most Asian countries. You can buy it, but it’s hella expensive. Probably for the best.

7. Being stared at is completely normal, but no easier to get used to. I’ve mostly stopped avoiding stranger’s stares, but find myself purposefully staring back to see what happens. So far, I look away first.

Lunch Lady8. Eating street food is one of the best parts of the city. This is where learning Vietnamese comes in handy—deciphering the menu or signs attached to the street cart. Sometimes it takes a little courage to ignore the stares and eat at a stand with a solely Vietnamese menu. I suggest doing a few drive-bys and scoping out what they’re serving before sitting down…

9. People are very curious about… me. Cue the questions. How old are you? Where are you from? No, like what are you? Where are you living? What’s your rent there? Do you have a boyfriend? Why aren’t you married yet?

10. Being a pedestrian might actually be more dangerous than riding on a motorbike. Giving pedestrians right of way is not how Vietnam operates. Crossing the street involves dodging 30+ motorbikes. At. The. Same. Damn. Time. I’ve learned: Just start walking. Confidently. Slowly. Not too slowly. Don’t rush. Never stop. Ignore the internal alarms, just. keep. walking. Unless you want to stay on the same side of the street forever, you have to put your trust in complete strangers’ hands and believe they will avoid you.

11. If there’s room, someone’s going for it. Sometimes, all you can see is a sea of helmets and motorbikes for miles ahead. In fact, their streets are the same as their elevators as their lines. 6 inches on the sidewalk? That will be a competition for a dozen bikes to fill. There’s room for one more person on the elevator? More like, let’s see if we can fit another 5 people. And you want to get off this elevator? You better throw some ’bows because seven more people are going to try to get on first. And if you’re in line, make sure you are as humanely close to the person in front of you as possible—even if there aren’t other people in line—because someone might come up and try to cut in front of you.

12. Eating noodles and rice with chopsticks is actually amazing. It always seemed super difficult at home, but it makes eating so much better here. Might be one of the many secrets to how Vietnamese women are so damn skinny…

13. Can’t get down with noodles and meat for breakfast. I’ve tried, but it’s not happening for me. I need yogurt or eggs or granola. Even just a banana and iced coffee works. Yesterday, I bought what I think is oatmeal…?

14. It’s very easy to get stuck in the expat bubble. I’m trying hard to befriend as many Vietnamese folks as I can because I really want to integrate myself into the culture. However, there’s a distinct divide between expats and locals, and it’s not always easy to bridge.

Ốc Tiên - Bờ Kè Hoàng Sa

15. You spend a lot of time drinking and eating at little plastic tables on little plastic stools. Hordes of people sitting in tiny, red or blue plastic chairs arranged on the sidewalk and street like an oversized game of musical chairs. We say, let’s just have a few and go somewhere else. Before we know it, we’ve gone through countless bottles of $4 homemade rum and coke and we’re stumbling to the nearest club (i.e. Apocalypse) to dance off the buzz.

16. Saigon’s location lends itself to some incredible weekend trips. It’s a short train or plane ride away Mui Ne, Dalat, Halong Bay, Hanoi, Hoi An. Not to mention, we border Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, and Singapore? The planning has already begun.

17. I quit caring (as much) about ants being everywhere. I find them crawling in my bed, on my clothes, in my sink, out from my computer.

18. I crave sweets all the time, but this sweet tooth might be assimilating. Vietnamese desserts are very subtle in sweetness—when it comes to desserts, I think of chocolate, cakes, or donuts. Here, their version is their version of dessert is flan, sticky rice, chè, moon cakes. At a buffet the other night, they had an ice-cream truck, but I found myself going for seconds on the sticky rice, which is basically just rice and sesame and honey…

19. Moving abroad has incredibly difficult, but surprisingly easy. Being so far away from friends and loved ones? Not even the best reception and longest Skype session can assuage that I-miss-home feeling. However, Saigon is incredibly receptive to expats and the things that I thought would be hard have been so easy! There’s such a supportive community here, especially since most people are experiencing the same woes (i.e. where can I find imported goods? Best place for a dentist? Where is the best massage parlour?)

20. Vietnamese is not impossible to learn… I think? I arrived in Saigon armed with a Vietnamese vocabulary of about zero words. Within a month, I’ve expanded that vocabulary to the essentials: hello, no, thank you, left, right, go, drink beer, iced coffee with milk, no sugar, tofu, bill. Now that I’m thinking about it, still not really sure how to say yes or goodbye, strangely enough. When it comes to communication, you learn quickly what you truly value…

The fact the Vietnamese switched over from character-based writing (similar to Chinese) to a Romanized script in the 17th century makes learning the language so much more doable. Never mind that this was as a result of foreign missionaries and colonization… I DIGRESS. Anyways, did you know that there are 12 vowels, 17 consonants, and 6 different tones in Vietnamese? That means each syllable can have up to 6 different meanings based on how you pronounce it, changing the meaning completely. Ma, for example, can mean mother, gravestone, horse, but, ghost, or rice seedling. Don’t even get me started on the differences between northern and southern pronunciation, which completely changes how most words are pronounced. While the letters F, J W and Z don’t technically exist, they do in spirit when certain marks are used, turning perfectly normal letters into a completely different sound altogether.

However, I’ve been practicing different phrases every day, and the point is to try. This language is all about muscle memory and practice. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been caught in that awkward situation of trying to say something, then repeating myself several times, raising my voice or changing my intonation five different ways, hoping to God the person will understand me and put me out of my misery. Vietnamese has been described to me as a musical language and the trick is to associate words with tunes to remember it. Here’s to singing my way through my Vietnamese lessons…

21. About the sound “Ng” (eg. Nguyen)—it’s awkward AF to pronounce.
Is the g silent or not???

When It Rains, It Pours

Peering through blurry glasses, I tried really hard to not get hit by a car. Pants soaked through, hair matted to my face in the most attractive way possible, and all the grime, rain, and miscellaneous debris dribbling between my feet, sandals, and pavement. Yes, I was experiencing my first tropical storm in typical Vietnamese fashion: semi-prepared and stranded between sidewalk-flood and slow moving motorbikes.

Buses somehow still manage to come barreling out of nowhere with no regard for pedestrians or the full-fledged families crammed on bikes buzzing by. And when I say full-fledged families, I mean older dude navigating the bike with his young son in his lap and older woman wedged behind him with another child in her lap or behind her. Even a month in, the traffic and commuting styles still cease to amaze me.

As I made the long walk home—head down and ears perked for any rogue motorbikes on the sidewalk—I contemplate my situation. This is my life for the next two months or so. While Souther1926941336_ae704185ff_zn Vietnam’s temperatures remain constant year round (re: hot AF), the climate of the south is split into two seasons: dry and wet. Of course, I move here as the wet season is peaking, lasting from May well into November.

However, I’ve learned that while being wet and cold can be extremely demoralizing and frustrating (i.e. hours of drizzling rain on end while paddling through endless Canadian lakes), it can also be used as an opportunity for self-reflection and character building. That’s right, I used my father’s dorky expression of “character building” to describe schlepping through the pouring-ass rain.

Only because I really believe that people are pushed when they are at their most uncomfortable. In this moment, I’m nowhere near home and my fast mode of transportation is my very own legs, one step in front of the other. There’s no music or companion to distract me, so I focus on other thoughts, really anything other than this moment. I try to stay alert, looking up every once in awhile to hail a cab only to be blinded by the rain. I’m actually being whipped in the face by the rain, water curling around my ankles.

I’ve never experienced anything quite like this, but there is really not much I can do to improve my situation. I look longingly at the covered stands, deciding to stop under one for a minute. I could stay and wait it out, but I look down at my soaked pants and know I’m just prolonging the inevitable.

Deep breath. You can do this. If you can pull yourself out of a literal mud-shit hole in the middle of a portage trail, you can walk home in the rain. You can endure a less-than-glamorous job of translating boring titles and tediously cold-calling potential client after potential client. Or go for months on end without seeing your family. So you’re a little broke and spent most of your savings on this move, but like, so are 90% of the other expats and natives you see. Right? Like I said, when it rains, it pours.

For all the beautiful, sun-drenched days I’ve had in Saigon, I had to remember I was desperate for change a few days ago. I’ve been missing the changing seasons of home, wishing I could use a jacket or wrap a scarf around my neck without sweating through it.

I look up at the sky. No end in sight. It’s so dark; I have no idea where the sky ends and clouds begin. I’m feeling a bit melodramatic, but I know better than to try to catch polluted raindrops on my tongue or leave myself exposed by closing my eyes in public.

I genuinely wonder: Why go through all this? Why do people suffer through the painful, lonely days to experience the highs? Is it worth it? Will I gain the clarity and make personal growth like I intended, or return the same person, with the same fears and sadness?

I think, maybe a rainbow will appear. Or the rain will stop. Just a small sign that I’m not completely f’ing this up. I’ve risked everything to be here, and there’s a lot of pressure to be strong and be smart and take advantage of the experience, but still be a responsible human. Deep breath. I feel the city, every day, pushing me out of my comfort zone and into this new space of living in unequal measures. Some days it’s a nudge; today I feel rocked to my core.

A cab stops finally, but I’m so close to home that wave him off and keep walking. One foot in front of the other.

Culture Shock; An Understatement

In my short time here, I’ve come to see how dynamic and vibrant the city of HCMC is. It’s a city characterized by sprawling skyscrapers and modern technology, but also traditional Buddhist pagodas and tiny motorbikes strapped with countless barrels of water. Almost every convenience is available to me, at the fraction of what it would cost in NYC (hello $3 dinners and $1 beers).motorbike_hcmc

Despite having a history marred by foreign occupations and tumultuous wars, the Vietnamese people are overwhelmingly gracious and kind towards expats. Though, a large majority of my communication with natives is done through pointing and simple phrases. In most cases, I find that they make every effort to bridge the language barrier and make me feel more welcomed.

Most things have worked out as I anticipated– found a room with a Vietnamese family near my work (after a number of dismal showings), opened a bank account relatively easily, and am successfully eating my way through all the restaurants and street vendors in my neighborhood. Turns out the dingy looking street carts with child-sized plastic tables and chairs crowding the sidewalks offer some of the best, most authentic food cooked and served by entire families. Surprisingly, I’m not as motivated to find the nearest gym….

A few weeks ago, things did not always seem so doable and available to me. To describe some of my initial thought processes:

  • “Oh shit, what have I done.” 
  • “No really, wtf have I done, moving to an entirely new country with a limited amount of money and no friends for thousands of miles???”

  • “I AM NEVER CROSSING THE STREET EVER. I will just figure out how to live in Saigon from this side of the road.”

  • “I just tried to say thank you and someone corrected me. It sounded EXACTLY THE SAME as what I said. I will never learn this language.”

  • “I just exchanged my American dollars and now am a millionaire. Is this real money??? Never thought I’d see this day before 30… or ever…”

My mood and outlook ricocheted between super excited and determined to anxious and sad, completely unaccustomed to this new lifestyle. Reeling from being on a completely opposite schedule from home and temporarily situated in the heart of Bui Vien, one of the busiest, most overwhelming areas of Saigon, I felt lost. I didn’t feel adventurous or brave or want to “get lost for hours in the city” as someone suggested. I skipped a real dinner for the first two nights, opting to stay in my hotel room and eat all the American food and snacks I brought, a stash that should have lasted much longer than that.

True to Vietnamese fashion, the westerner lifestyle is never out of reach. I did what any normal millennial would: ventured to the nearest Starbucks and found a small reprieve from the oppressing heat. Finding that Starbucks, which I now see and will fondly think of as my first week’s saving grace, took any remaining energy I had left from my 35 hour journey from Cincinnati to Ho Chi Minh. Wired on coffee and jet lag, I sat there for hours and read more than half of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken. Simply put, I felt safe because I could pretend it was Cincinnati or New York City outside, not HCMC. From behind the glass pane, the insurmountable sea of motorbikes didn’t seem so scary.

Culture shock; an understatement. One of my favorite quotes from Unbroken resonated with me in light of my emotional roller coaster: “His conviction that everything happened for a reason, and would come to good, gave him laughing equanimity even in hard times.” I am here. I choose to be here. This is where I am supposed to be. Everything happens for a reason. I had to reset my expectations for Saigon, stop comparing it to my life in NYC. A life that I had years to build. A life that started similarly: took a gamble on a start-up non profit, knew nobody for miles, had housing situated in what seemed a foreign country (re: love you Wash Heights, but you’re hella different from the rest of Manhattan).

Then, life happened. I did what I do best and suggested drinks with coworkers and started piecing together this new life. Figured out where to buy groceries and toilet paper. Killed my first bathroom cockroach (it was terrifying). Scoped out the best place for iced coffee (because that was the most important item on my to-do list one day). Befriended the fruit lady and waffle man and fried banana man for mid-day snacks (hanger still exists abroad). Even considering renting my own motorbike, as I’ve learned to navigate the streets with some semblance of confidence.

I see (though still don’t fully understand) the organized chaos in Vietnam, choosing to view the endless traffic as a disjointed illustration of Confucianism—everyone helps each other to ensure harmony on the roads. And somehow, it all works out in the end.

Goodbyes are never easy

Parting with New York City took me awhile to mentally accept—as I don’t know how I could ever be truly ready to leave such a vibrant, bustling city—but leaving the country as a whole? “You’re fucking crazy!” as understandably stated by several relatives and friends.

I now find myself on the other side of the country, waiting out a seven-turned-fourteen-hour layover in LAX and again mentally preparing for this leave from my home of 26 years. It’s hard to believe that this day is finally here. I’ve been anticipating it for months, having committed to this move in early June.

The physical process of moving abroad is an undertaking in itself, if only for the impossible task of packing your entire life into two 50 lb. suitcases and two carry on bags. When I moved home to Cincinnati from NYC, I managed to downsize my entire apartment into a jeep-full of boxes and bags. One week later, I managed to strip my entire wardrobe down to the absolute necessary and begrudgingly leave behind over 40 pairs of shoes and countless outfits.

Leaving was hard, but it wasn’t Cincinnati I would be missing. As it turns out, being home for ten days is more than enough downtime because there’s only so much to do in Ohio (eat, sleep, drink, repeat). It was the leaving behind of my family and friends that makes it the most difficult. I have so many people in my life that are rooting for me to grow from this experience and succeed, and it is starting to dawn on me that I won’t be seeing many of them for a very long time.

It’s actually quite the contradiction: I often feel the closest to the ones I love when I am furthest from them. I think that may be more common than you think, as traveling has a way of making folks become more reflective, humble individuals. I’ve only been gone a few days and my appreciation for my loved ones has grown exponentially.

And with that appreciation, might come homesickness. I expect to experience that at some point, but in our digital age, it’s never been easier to communicate back home and get in touch with family. I reassure myself that they are never more than a video call or email away. In fact, I truly believe there’s never been a better time than now to travel; I may thousands of miles across the Pacific, but I’m never alone.

With every goodbye, comes a new hello. I can’t wait to say hello to my new home!!!

Read. // Listen.

Read. // Harvard grad turned algebra teacher’s speech to the 2015 graduating class of my alma mater, Madeira High School:

Understanding compensation and reaping its benefits largely comes down to your attitude. Will you be the type who wallows in self-pity? Will you be the one who always sees the sky falling? Or will you be the one who sees the silver lining in every dark cloud? And will you be the one who anticipates the sun coming up tomorrow?

As you move into your futures, I am not going to wish you a fairy-tale life where you live happily ever after. I am not going to wish you a road without bumps and dead ends and obstacles. I am not going to wish you a world without hardship. Instead, I am going to wish you the strength to persevere when everything around you is falling apart. I am going to wish you the ability to rise from the ashes and bounce back stronger than ever when it seems like nothing is going your way. I am going to wish you the faith, wisdom, and guidance to overcome all which comes to you, to find the silver lining in every cloud, to find the compensation in every loss. Vince Lombardi, the famous football coach, put it well when he said: “The glory is not in never falling down. The glory is in fighting to get up every time you do get knocked down.” Another writer said this thought in a different way which I have always found inspiring: “Only when the sky is darkest can I see the stars.”

Listen. //

Negotiating the balance between writing and motherhood

These modern female writers all desired to love deeply and intimately, to challenge themselves, to experiment with permanence, to create something that would outlast them, to never turn away from a human experience. Such are the qualities of motherhood, not “momish”ness—it’s not all nurturing and sacrifice, regardless of how our culture chooses to define and deify the maternal.

The Secret to Being Both a Successful Writer and Mother: Have Just One Kid

Such is the supposed dilemma between motherhood and a successful career–but I’m wondering if these questions reflect the internalization that women have to choose between the two: either have a happy career or a happy home. One will cost you the other. There’s an underlying judgment from society that says, Which do you value more? Yourself or your children?

I get the sinking feeling that writers are viewed as self-absorbed, negligent even (“It was not widely considered an ideal year to take an infant to southeast Asia, yet it never occurred to me to adjust the plan,” [Didion] wrote), but this type of selfishness and devotion to prose is what leads to compelling writing, stunning ideas. To think that our decisions to do what makes us happy, in this case writing, will lead to the loss of something with incalculable value is a little worrying, a little condescending , and frankly, quite a bit thought-provoking, especially for someone that hopes to be a published writer and maybe mom one day.

Once upon a time, motherhood marks the advent of maturity, says Ann Hubert, rather than the current orgy of anxiety. Anxiety to have kids, anxiety of giving up something intangible (youth? work? friends? sex life?). “Do not have kids until you are ready. Or at all,” is something that I always hear my father say, having had me at the age of 30-something himself and my brother a few years later. As the most self-reliant, intelligent, yet commitment-fearing individual I know, I know he says it with the kindest intentions. The implication being that children can be a huge obstacle for the journey of self-fulfillment. As the child of a wanderer, I see so much of him in myself: the fierce desire to be independent, well-traveled, and totally open to any and new experiences and hardships, taking them as opportunities for growth and self-reflection. However, watching him move from one career to the next–military veteran, CEO, PhD candidate, professor of finance, now traveler and adjunct university professor–I notice one constant in his life, two people that he has created and can always count on to ground him, keep him company (when he wants it), and love him unconditionally: my brother and I.

In fact, this revelation intertwines family, writing, children, and happiness so closely and inexplicably–without us, there would be no him, in this moment, with all those choices that defined the life he has lived. He chooses to live his life with no regrets, making no excuses for what he’s done or hasn’t done. If he wants to do something, he does it. As my father, he will always hold my actions to a high standard, urging me to push myself mentally, emotionally, artistically. If I decide to become a mother, this won’t change–in fact, the standard will most likely be held to a higher degree, if only because he knows that motherhood is a daunting next step in my life, and I need to be prepared to do everything in my power to be a good mother, yet be true to my personal aspirations.

“Watch your eyesight,” says my Filipino mom, her intended meaning being watch your perspective. Watch your perspective–and adjust it, if necessary–is right. Motherhood will add a dimension to your writing that never existed before–an entirely new subject to reflect upon, vent about, form opinions on. Work with what you have. Writing about your children makes you no less of a writer, it makes you someone that writes about topics that are meaningful to you, topics that matter to a lot of people.

I don’t think that pursuing your dreams means that you will automatically be compromising your integrity as a parent and individual. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, and Mary McCarthy were good people, the writers of our times, scrutinized mothers. To me, writing came naturally, motherhood is a learned trait. There is a way to negotiate being both, without losing one, or the other, or both. Having children does change everything, but it doesn’t have to change who you are or what you do. Demand time for yourself. Dedicate yourself to your craft and realize that if you feel like you are a shitty writer, it’s not because of your children–or your job–or your spouse or noisy people outside of your apartment at 3AM. It’s because of you.

For All You Idealistic, Enthusiastic Writers with Little Professional Writing Experience

A week or so before ringing in the New Year, I posted a Facebook status for the first time in months: No New Year’s resolutions for me… I wanted to make changes in my life, so I made them when they needed to happen, not because it’s a new year. Cheers to another year of good choices and happy memories!

I received a chorus of “Oh…” and “Amen, sista!” from my friends, and I know it sounds a little condescending and sarcastic, but I still stand by it. It has nothing to do with gym promises, crash dieting, or even devising my own 2013 bucket list. It’s about the fact that for the first time in my twenty-three years of life, I’m trying to take control of my life and do something about the fact that I’m an idealistic, enthusiastic, passionate writer with little professional writing experience.

I made a promise to myself to blog daily, reach out to online writing communities, read more frequently, and take full advantage of my time living in New York City. I’ve found that as I blog and talk to other writers more, my desire to reach out to other people in similar situations as me increases, solidifying the purpose behind my blogDo Now.

Here’s what I know…
I’m tired of hearing that everything you do should align with an “ultimate” goal. Whether or not you choose them, your experiences are what shape you as a person, define your writing, and inform your decisions. I think that we should stop thinking about how we should best live our lives and live it! Does it feel good to hear it? Because it feels good to say it. I’m a teaching assistant at an urban high school in the Bronx, and it might not outwardly appear to fit my criteria for my “life’s work,” but who cares! While I may not be writing for a magazine or working for a publishing house, I’m doing something that is important and meaningful; something inspires me and surrounds me with amazing, thoughtful individuals.

You should always keep your promises.
In my 9th grade English classes, we’re teaching our students how to formulate solid opinions to a number of statements: When it comes down to it, you’re only responsible for yourself. Success comes through hard work. You should always keep your promises.

I’ve had to explain to my students over and over again why promises and honesty are important to people and it’s led me to think about the fact that many of us are not being honest with ourselves. Truth time: How badly do you want to be an engaging and distinct writer? While I’m a non-believer about the grand plan, I still believe there’s so much value in doing everything possible to put yourself out there. Are you sitting idly by, or trying to connect with to fellow writers and improve your craft? Are you prepared to face rejection? And finally, do you enjoy writing? Why is it important to you?

Keeping these questions in mind, I think it’s time to move forward from whatever inaction or fear that has been holding you back and take the initiative to do better. It’s not an impossible task, especially if I can do it! I’ve proved to myself that I can refocus my energies towards creating compelling, relevant content. From here on out, it’s all about sustaining that energy and maintaining your writerly momentum.

At the beginning of 2012, I was consumed by my senior thesis and creative writing workshops. When working under a deadline, I couldn’t stop writing. I wrote every single day, revised and tweaked and dismantled mywriting until I couldn’t recognize it, then put it all back together in the hopes that it would become more than just a final workshop project. Back then, my journal was brimming with ideas, character maps, and scribbles in the corner. Six months ago, it was empty and sad. I lost that momentum and allowed myself to sink into a state ofwriter’s limbo, where I’m thinking about writing and how I should be revising and submitting work, but not actually doing anything about it. I started critiquing the quality of my work before I even wrote it down!

After the crisis of I’m-about-to-graduate-college-and-enter-the-real-world died down, I realized that not only do we need to stop putting pressure on ourselves to be constantly making career moves, but we need to stop pressuring ourselves to be the perfect writers. It really doesn’t exist, especially the first or even fifth draft around. Now, I find myself re-writing the words of my favorite authors and poets: Joan Didion, Adrienne Rich, David Sedaris, Gerald Stern, Vladimir Nabokov. I find myself re-writing their words when I can’t, for the life of me, find my own voice.

And it helps. I transcribed a hilarious excerpt by David Sedaris and realized that I wanted to respond to it. I have something of value to say. I’m training myself to constantly be working on my craft, on my own timeline, because it’s important to find the discipline to write on a daily basis. A hundred words are better than no words. If you find yourself starting and stopping, or trashing every single word you write, then take a break. Read a book and underline those amazing passages that startle you, piss you off, make you smile. Realize that you are not alone in this. There are so many writers in the world that feel deflated and uninspired, looking everywhere for motivation and epiphanies, but finding that when they set out to discover that pivotal moment or experience that drives a best-seller or career move, it is more likely than ever to not happen.

So what happens next?
After all this, I think the answer is pretty obvious, don’t you? When it comes down to it, you’re only responsible for yourself. Success comes through hard work. You should always keep your promises.

If anything, keep this promise to yourself: Write every day. Read every day.


With all the college graduations happening in the next month or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about my college readers who are feeling anything between excitement to fear and probably have no idea what they’re doing. I refuse to ask any graduating seniors, So what’s your plan? What are you thinking of doing? If only because when I was about to graduate and someone asked me that question for the 1000th time, my gut reaction was to punch them in the face. But I survived the questions and the release from college. And you will too. After a almost a year of living the post-grad life, I have news for you: not much has changed.

I’ve been reading Cheryl Strayed’s book Tiny, Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar, a compilation of all her columns thus far as Sugar, and one entry in particular stuck out to me. Her blunt honesty and no-nonsense advice is something that we all need to hear sometimes.




May 5th, 2011

Dearest Sugar, Light of My Thursday Afternoons:

I teach a few creative writing courses at the University of Alabama where the majority of my students are seniors graduating in May. Most of them are English and Creative Writing majors/minors who are feeling a great deal of dread and anxiety about their expulsion from academia and their entry into “the real world.” Many of their friends in other disciplines have already lined up post-graduate jobs, and many of my students are tired of the “being an English major prepares you for law school” comments being made by friends and family alike, who are pressuring them towards a career in law despite having little or no interest in it.

I have been reading a handful of your columns to my students in an attempt to pep them up and let them know that everything is going to be all right. They have written like motherfuckers. They have pictured the kittens behind the sheetrock.

Our school has decided to forgo a graduation speaker for the last five years or so, and even when we did have a graduation speaker, often they were leaders in business or former athletes, and so their message was lost on the ears of the majority of 21 and 22-year-olds. So Sugar, I am cordially asking you to deliver a graduation speech for our little class of writers. While we might have difficulty obtaining you an honorary PhD, believe me when I say that among us are some extremely talented writers, bakers, musicians, editors, designers and video game players who will gladly write you a lyric essay, bake you a pie, write you a song, and perform countless other acts of kindness in exchange for your advice.

Cupcake & Team 408

Dear Cupcake &Team 408,

There’s a line by the Italian writer Carlo Levi that I think is apt here: “The future has an ancient heart.” I love it because it expresses with such grace and economy what is certainly true—that who we become is born of who we most primitively are; that we both know and cannot possibly know what it is we’ve yet to make manifest in our lives. I think it’s a useful sentiment for you to reflect upon now, sweet peas, at this moment when the future likely feels the opposite of ancient, when instead it feels like a Lamborghini that’s pulled up to the curb while every voice around demands you get in and drive.

I’m here to tell you it’s okay to travel by foot. In fact, I recommend it. There is so much ahead that’s worth seeing; so much behind you can’t identify at top speed. Your teacher is correct: You’re going to be all right. And you’re going to be all right not because you majored in English or didn’t and not because you plan to apply to law school or don’t, but because all right is almost always where we eventually land, even if we fuck up entirely along the way.

I know. I fucked up some things. I was an English major too. As it happens, I lied for six years about having an English degree, though I didn’t exactly mean to lie. I had in truth gone to college and participated in a graduation ceremony. I’d walked across the stage and collected a paper baton. On that paper it said a bachelor’s degree would be mine once I finished one final class. It seemed like such an easy thing to do, but it wasn’t. And so I didn’t do it and the years slipped past, each one making it seem more unlikely that I’d ever get my degree. I’d done all the coursework except that one class. I’d gotten good grades. To claim that I had an English degree was truer than not, I told myself. But that didn’t make it true.

You have to do what you have to do. You can’t go to law school if you don’t have any interest in being a lawyer. You can’t take a class if taking a class feels like it’s going to kill you. Faking it never works. If you don’t believe me, read Richard Wright. Read Charlotte Brontë. Read Joy Harjo. Read William Trevor. Read the entire Western canon. Or just close your eyes and remember everything you already know. Let whatever mysterious starlight that guided you this far, guide you onward into whatever crazy beauty awaits. Trust that all you learned during your college years was worth learning, no matter what answer you have or do not have about what use it is. Know that all those stories and poems and plays and novels are a part of you now and that they are bigger than you and they will always be.

I was a waitress during most of the years that I didn’t have my English degree. My mother had been a waitress for many of the years that she was raising my siblings and me. She loved to read. She always wanted to go to college. One time she took a night class when I was very young and my father became enraged with her and cut her textbook into tiny pieces with a pair of scissors. She dropped the class. I think it was Biology.

You don’t have to get a job that makes others feel comfortable about what they perceive as your success. You don’t have to explain what you plan to do with your life. You don’t have to justify your education by demonstrating its financial rewards. You don’t have to maintain an impeccable credit score. Anyone who expects you to do any of those things has no sense of history or economics or science or the arts.

You have to pay your own electric bill. You have to be kind. You have to give it all you got. You have to find people who love you truly and love them back with the same truth.

But that’s all.

I got married when I was in college. I got divorced during the years that I was lying about having an English degree. When I met the man to whom I am now married he said, “You know, I really think you should finish your degree, not because I want you to, but I can tell that you want to.” I thought he was sort of being an asshole. We didn’t bring up the subject again for a year.

I understand what you’re afraid of, sweet peas. I understand what your parents fear. There are practical concerns. One needs money to live. And then there is a deep longing to feel legitimate in the world, to feel that others hold us in regard. I felt intermittently ashamed during my years as a waitress. I’m the only one of my siblings who went to college. I was supposed to be the one who “made it.” At times it seemed instead I had squandered my education and dishonored my dead mother by becoming a waitress like her. Sometimes I would think of this as I went from table to table with my tray and I’d have to think of something else so I wouldn’t cry.

Years after I no longer worked at the last restaurant where I waited tables, my first novel was published. The man who’d been my manager at the restaurant read about me in the newspaper and came to my reading. He’d been a pretty awful boss—in fact, at times I’d despised him—but I was touched to see him in the bookstore that night. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” he asked when we embraced.

“I would have,” I replied.

And it was true. I always would have guessed it, even all the time that I feared it would never happen. Being there that night was the meaning of my life. Getting there had been my every intention. When I say you don’t have to explain what you’re going to do with your life I’m not suggesting you lounge around whining about how difficult it is. I’m suggesting you apply yourself with some serious motherfuck-i-tude in directions for which we have no accurate measurement. I’m talking about work. And love.

It’s really condescending to tell you how young you are. It’s even inaccurate. Some of you who are graduating from college are not young. Some of you are older than me. But to those of you new college graduates who are indeed young, the old new college graduates will back me up on this: you are so god damned young. Which means about eight of the ten things you have decided about yourself will over time prove to be false. The other two things will prove to be so true that you’ll look back in twenty years and howl.

My mother was young too, but not like those of you who are so god damned young. She was forty when she finally went to college. She spent the last years of her life as a college student, though she didn’t know they were her last years. She thought she was at the beginning of the next era of her life. She died a couple of months before we were both supposed to graduate from different schools. At her memorial service, my mother’s favorite professor stood up and granted her a PhD.

The most terrible and beautiful and interesting things happen in a life. For some of you, those things have already happened. Whatever happens to you belongs to you. Make it yours. Feed it to yourself even if it feels impossible to swallow. Let it nurture you, because it will.

I have learned this over and over and over again.

There came a day when I decided to stop lying. I called the college from which I did not have an English degree and asked the woman who answered the phone what I needed to do to get one. She told me I had only to take one class. It could be any class. I chose Latin. I’d never studied Latin, but I wanted to know, at last, where so many of our words come from. I had a romantic idea of what it would be like to study Latin—the Romance languages are, after all, descended from it—but it wasn’t romantic. It was a lot of confusion and memorization and attempting to decipher bizarre stories about soldiers marching around ancient lands. In spite of my best efforts, I got a B.

One thing I never forgot from my Latin class is that a language that is descended from another language is called a daughter language.

It was the beginning of the next era of my life, like this is of yours.

Years after I no longer lived in the state where my mother and I went to college , my first novel was published and I traveled to that state to give a reading. Just as my former awful boss had done in a different city mere weeks before, the professor who’d granted my mother a PhD at her memorial service read about me in the newspaper and came to the bookstore to hear me read. “All those years ago, who would have ever guessed we’d be here celebrating the publication of your novel?” she asked when we embraced.

“Not me,” I replied. “Not me.”

And it was true. I meant it as sincerely as I’d meant that I always would’ve guessed it when I’d been speaking to my boss. That both things could be true at once—my disbelief as well as my certainty—was the unification of the ancient and the future parts of me. It was everything I intended and yet still I was surprised by what I got.

I hope you will be surprised and knowing at once. I hope you’ll always have love. I hope you’ll have days of ease and a good sense of humor. I hope one of you really will bake me a pie (banana cream, please). I hope when people ask what you’re going to do with your English and/or creative writing degree you’ll say: Continue my bookish examination of the contradictions and complexities of human motivation and desire; or maybe just: Carry it with me, as I do everything that matters. And then smile very serenely until they say oh.


Read. // Write. // Listen.

Read.// 5 Career Lessons it Took me 3 Years to Learn: Advice from one of my blog crushes, Marian Schembari, for recent grads looking frantically for a job, particularly one that has something to do with writing or publishing.

My inbox floods in waves. Every May and every December I get a few dozen emails from recent graduates who are frantically trying to figure out what the hell to do with their lives. For some reason they think I have an answer on how to get a job. I don’t.

But over the past few years I have learned a thing or to about work and my career and what I want out of work and my career. And there’s a list a mile long of the things I wish I had known after graduating college, things that only come from experience and making stupid mistakes.

 Lesson 1: Get over your fear of falling.

It’s been 3 years now since I graduated Davidson College and if I knew right off the bat that I didn’t have to get a ‘safe’ job and the only way to be happy is to do what your gut tells you that you really love than I would have done things differently. I wouldn’t have settled for a boring office job, but I’m glad I quit when I did and traveled when I did.

 Lesson 2: Get published.

If I had known how valuable this blog would be three years down the line, I would have started in college. Even if your job doesn’t involve writing, WRITE. Not a great writer? Learn. Seriously, the ability to have people from all industries in all countries to be able to see your work/thoughts/skills is worth the few hours you’d spend a week writing. And it doesn’t have to be a blog. This can be your school newspaper, someone else’s blog, your local paper, a community leaflet, whatever. It doesn’t matter. Point is, people will want to see that you’ve gone the extra mile and have ideas worth listening to. Plus, I can’t remember the last time someone asked me what my degree was.

 Lesson 3: Start small.

When I was looking at jobs for the big publishers, they wanted other publishing experience, even though I was only 21. So take publishing for example: find boutique, weird, quirky or niche publishing houses (or websites!) and start there. That’s not to say you can’t go big, but in terms of being “realistic”, small is good. Plus, I LOVE working for small companies. You get heaps more experience and – surprisingly – the pay is often better for newbies.


Emailing strangers is a good place to start, but won’t be enough. Join MeetUp groups, email every industry leader in your area, join a professional organization, shell out for conferences, read top blogs and contact the contributors. Then connect with them on LinkedIn. You do have LinkedIn, right? These are the people who are going to help you get jobs and vouch for you. If any of them are near your school, invite them for a coffee. Meeting in person is ALWAYS better than email. ALWAYS ALWAYS ALWAYS.

Lesson 5: Hire a resume writer.

I used social media to get a job and I’ve been using it since. But don’t underestimate the power of a good resume. I hired Jenny Foss of jobjenny.com and had the guys at Loft design it. They both blew my mind. My resume is the best thing since sliced bread and every job I’ve applied for has at least asked me in for an interview since then. My newest job in San Francisco called me for an interview within 12 hours of sending my resume. I was offered the gig less than 2 weeks later.

While I want to say that I would have saved myself a lot of grief by following these lessons three years ago instead of now, sometimes you just gotta make mistakes to really drive a lesson home. What was the dumbest career mistake you ever made?

Write. // Why I’m having the best week ever? Two words: Typing week. Meaning, my kids are either handwriting their essays, peer-editing, or typing on a computer. I get to sit in the back, monitor their behavior, answer a few questions, but otherwise, I’m here in a purely facilitating manner. Probably sounds terrible, coming from someone that has dedicated the past year to educational reform, but honestly, my brain hurts. It hurts from coming up with useful motivation tactics, “looking at data,” over thinking, grading, trying to explain how to develop an essay ten different ways. Of course, I love so many things about my job. I couldn’t imagine spending this year any differently, but that doesn’t change the fact that I’m straight up exhausted and over-worked. Balancing a social life and work life, while living on a stipend in New York City, ends up looking like me falling asleep at 9 pm on a Saturday. The only thing I’m thirsty for on a Thursday is a huge ass glass of water to go with my favorite homemade dish, Greek-yogurt inspired mac ‘n cheese. For the second night in a row. I don’t even hate it, especially after a long, grueling day of instruction and behavioral management. Which brings me back to why this is the best week ever: typing and independent reading. An overdue, mental break for the brain. Your turn: Why are you having the best week ever? And don’t kid yourself, there is always a reason to write about why this is going to be the best week of your life.

Listen. // Looking for a little writing inspiration? I’ve been obsessed with Miguel’s album Kaleidoscope Dream lately, so here’s one of his more popular songs that always puts me into the mood to relax and journal in my bed:

Read. // Sherman Alexie & Sharon Olds

In honor of the poetry reading I’m attending tonight, here are two reads from two of my favorite poets that will be reading at the Tribute to Lucille Clifton.

Grief Calls Us to the Things of This World
By Sherman Alexie

The morning air is all awash with angels
—Richard Wilbur, “Love Calls Us to the Things of This World”

The eyes open to a blue telephone
In the bathroom of this five-star hotel.
I wonder whom I should call? A plumber,
Proctologist, urologist, or priest?
Who is blessed among us and most deserves
The first call? I choose my father because
He’s astounded by bathroom telephones.
I dial home. My mother answers. “Hey, Ma,”
I say, “Can I talk to Poppa?” She gasps,
And then I remember that my father
Has been dead for nearly a year. “Shit, Mom,”
I say. “I forgot he’s dead. I’m sorry—
How did I forget?” “It’s okay,” she says.
“I made him a cup of instant coffee
This morning and left it on the table—
Like I have for, what, twenty-seven years—
And I didn’t realize my mistake
Until this afternoon.” My mother laughs
At the angels who wait for us to pause
During the most ordinary of days
And sing our praise to forgetfulness
Before they slap our souls with their cold wings.
Those angels burden and unbalance us.
Those fucking angels ride us piggyback.
Those angels, forever falling, snare us
And haul us, prey and praying, into dust.
May 4, 2011

After Making Love in Winter
By Sharon Olds

 At first I cannot have even a sheet on me,
anything at all is painful, a plate of
iron laid down on my nerves, I lie there in the
air as if flying rapidly without moving, and
slowly I cool off.-hot,
warm, cool, cold, icy, till the
skin all over my body is ice
except at those points our bodies touch like
blooms of fire. Around the door
loose in its frame, and around the transom, the
light from the hall burns in straight lines and
casts up narrow beams on the ceiling, a
figure throwing up its arms for joy.
In the mirror, the angles of the room are calm, it is the
hour when you can see that the angle itself is blessed,
and the dark globes of the chandelier,
suspended in the mirror, are motionless-I can
feel my ovaries deep in my body, I
gaze at the silvery bulbs, maybe I am
looking at my ovaries,
it is clear everything I look at is real
and good. We have come to the end of questions,
you run your palm, warm, large,
dry, back along my face over and
over, over and over, like God
putting the finishing touches on, before
sending me down to be born.